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The real secret behind Gatsby

The Great Gatsby is one of the best-known American novels, but weirdly, and strangely reflective of Gatsby himself, one of the least understood. The much-awaited Baz Lurhmann version of The Great Gatsby opens in the United States tomorrow, and like Gatsby himself — as a new trailer reminds us — the novel is “guarding secrets.”

In the course of the novel, and no doubt the new film version, we find out what Gatsby is hiding: not only his criminal bootlegging, but also his family name, Gatz, and his poor, ethnic-American roots, which in the end exclude him from the upper-class Anglo-American social circles he hoped to enter. We understand his frustrated American dream, and we understand too why he felt the need to fabricate for himself the pedigree of a patrician family with the Anglo-sounding surname Gatsby.

We’ve all been taught the novel is about the disappearing American dream, but that’s only part of the story, the postwar part. The other part, the “back story” set during World War I, is about the American dream suddenly and dramatically on the rise: how Gatsby, this “Nobody from Nowhere,” as Daisy’s husband Tom calls him, gets to meet Anglo-American princess Daisy on equal terms, so she can fall in love with him. Tom will be “damned” if he sees how Gatsby “got within a mile of [Daisy] unless [he] brought groceries to the back door.”

Of course, what got Gatsby in the front door of her house during the war was his officer status: “he went to her house, at first with other officers from Camp Taylor.” The novel makes clear how the war gave Gatsby a new social status when it made him an officer. He crossed the “indiscernible barbed wire” between classes when he put on the “invisible cloak of his uniform.”

What the novel doesn’t answer is how Gatsby, a poor farm boy from North Dakota and apparently a German-American to boot, got to be an officer in the US Army when Germany was the enemy. The novel definitely “guards secrets” on this point. Did Gatsby fool the army the way he fools most of the people in the novel about himself, with his polished manner, his false name, and his invented family background? The novel’s narrator Nick Carraway naturally comes to doubt Gatsby’s account of a military commission that was supposed to have been issued out of a made-up upper-class background.

Then how does Gatsby make officer? The novel gives two hints on the subject, which most critics have ignored and most readers, informed by the criticism, read right past. In fact, as a college professor, I’ve taught many students who think they remember the novel pretty well from high school but have forgotten that Gatsby was even a soldier.

Nick eventually corrects Gatsby’s romantic saga of his promotion in the American Army, from lieutenant to major at the front as a result of his combat heroics, and notes, “He was a captain before he went to the front.” That’s the first hint. The second is that Fitzgerald put Gatsby at Camp Taylor though it was at Camp Sheridan near Montgomery, Alabama that he met his future wife Zelda — for many critics, the obvious inspiration for Daisy.

Photograph of F. Scott Fitzgerald c. 1921, appearing in “The World’s Work” (June 1921 issue)

Take these tiny, seemingly meaningless hints to the library and the archive, and here’s what you discover. The World War I American army, which had to build an officers’ corps of 200,000 rapidly and almost from scratch, needed some quick methods for identifying men who might be officer material, and specifically those who might make good captains. It developed a couple of unprecedented programs to do so: a rating system for identifying captains, and an intelligence test that identified potential officers and superior officers. The even more radical move that the army made — shocking to privileged young men, such as Fitzgerald, who expected traditional class and ethnic discrimination — was not to exclude immigrants and ethnic Americans from consideration for officer. (Indeed, the army’s initial plan was to have no racial prejudice and to open up such promotions to blacks as well, but the government under pressure from Southern civilian officials nixed the original idea of a complete meritocracy.) The army designated four training camps at which to pioneer the intelligence tests in late 1917 and Camp Taylor was one of them.

Fitzgerald would have known about this because he was at Camp Taylor in 1917, which is when, in the novel, he has Gatsby pass through. Someone like Gatsby — that is, someone born in America and a high-school graduate in an era when the average white man completed less than seven years of schooling — would have aced the intelligence tests, which, as we know, tested for education and cultural literacy, not native intelligence.

The other thing to know about Camp Taylor is that there were a large number of men of German descent there; by end of the war, they numbered nearly 1500. There is no doubt that the American army, though it was fighting Germany, had plenty of German-American officers. A French soldier reported with shock in 1917: “You could not imagine a more extraordinary gathering than this american [sic] army, there is a bit of everything, Greeks, Italians, Turks, Indians, Spanish, also a sizable number of boches [Germans]. Truthfully, almost half of the officers have German origins.”

Why would Fitzgerald have cared about how Gatsby made captain — and more to the point — why would he have been secretive about this information? Here it helps to know that Fitzgerald was frustrated in his own military ambitions and his army record was an embarrassment to him. Though he made it into officer training by taking an entrance exam open to college students, he never got sent to Europe, and captain was precisely the rank he desired and had fantasies about, but never achieved. He stalled at first lieutenant, the rank below. And this was at a charged wartime moment when masculinity was being equated with combat service and army rank. To make matters worse for him, he watched men who he considered his social inferiors make that rank of captain and pass him by.

It is unlikely that Fitzgerald imagined Gatsby making it into officers’ training on the basis of fabrications because fabrications were irrelevant to the army’s personnel processes. One of the reasons the army liked the intelligence tests so much, flawed though they were, was because they got around the problem of relying on soldiers’ possibly false accounts of their own education and skills. As the wartime Committee on Psychology put it in a memorandum, they eliminated “the danger of charletans” (sic).

In short, the particular American mobilization for the World War I, with its new and very particular methods for selecting officers meant that a nobody like Gatsby could be chosen for officer training and specifically promoted to captain while still at camp. The novel reflects this moment — the moment Gatsby wants to recover, in his desperate effort to “repeat the past.” 

It also reflects the backlash of the WASP establishment against upstart “war heroes” like Gatsby after the war. And, unfamiliar with obscure US Army history and taking our current world of meritocratic promotion for granted, that’s all that strikes us about the novel.

Will the new movie reveal Gatsby’s secret? Probably not. But I was happy at least to see that one of the official trailers put emphasis on the mystery of Gatsby’s rise as well as his soldiering in World War I.

Image credit: Images one and three from The Great Gatsby movie copyright Warner Brothers Entertainment. Used for purposes of illustration. Image two from The World’s Work (The World’s Work (June 1921), p. 192) Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Headline image credit: Film. Public domain via Pixabay.

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  1. […] Gandal on Baz Lurhmann’s The Great Gatsby permalink buy now read more Posted on Tuesday, May 28th, 2013 at 8:30 am […]

  2. Jent

    Gatsby is not a high school graduate so your theory doesn’t make sense.

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